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Regular assembly: Urbanisation and the right to the city

On the eve of the first local referendum in Macedonia to preserve the original look of GTC (City Trade Centre), we address the significance of the present moment in which the citizens will be directly shaping their city. Over 43.000 citizens residing in the Centar municipality will be voting in favour of or against the preservation of the original modernist look of GTC. A referendum campaign held in April and a recent publication familiarised the citizens with the significance of preserving the building’s original architectural style.

Arguments in favour or against the referendum question revolve around the function and the significance of GTC. On one hand, supporters of the planned makeover suggest that GTC, fenced off with walls and secured from bad weather conditions, will become a more pleasant space for shoppers. In contrast, various citizen initiatives and the Association of Architects argue that the proposed changes will transform GTC from a space open to diverse – not consumer-only – experiences to a big-box mall.

We here build on existing arguments around the planned makeover, expanding the debate towards the wider concepts of urbanisation, and the possibility and/or necessity for citizens to directly shape their cities. The local referendum is an alternative to public consultations, a mode of participation that is common for urban planning in Macedonia, and is for most part either symbolic or it disenfranchises citizens. Deciding directly about the processes of urbanisation, citizens claim their right to the city— the right to remake collectively the environment that they inhabit. What possibilities, spaces and relations, then, emerge when citizens make direct decisions about the processes of urbanisation? How is this achieved through urban planning and architecture? Can architects, urban planners and institutions in Macedonia support the planning of a city of all and for all its citizens?

Five contributors responded to these questions:

 

Assembly co-ordinators: Mila Shopova and Leonora Grcheva

Photo credits: Leonora Grcheva

Skopje and the neoliberal city

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Aleksandar Shopov

David Harvey has characterised the neoliberal city as, among other things, a space where the creation of new forms of city governance and of a partnership between public and private sectors leads to ‘improvements’ that are cosmetic, while actual living conditions and services such as education or housing are unaffected or decline. The goal is to create spaces for increasing consumption.

In the centre of Skopje this new partnership has taken on especially dramatic forms. The baroque facades ostensibly meant to transform the city into a European capital have been used to justify the construction of private office and housing spaces on land formerly owned by the state. One of the first fruits of such a partnership was the Ramstore shopping mall (Koç Holding), for which state land was sold at a discount through an agreement between developers and the government, creating at the same time a new form of city governance. The partnership was advertised as beneficial for the citizens who would gain, the developers assured, a modern space suited to their needs. In the decade since the Ramstore deal, more state-owned land has been sold in Skopje, in the centre and elsewhere, through partnerships forged between the city government and investors. The national government also plays a role in such deals by redirecting public funds to developments, even if the use and ownership of the land is passed on to private entities. One example is the gated community Sonchev Grad (‘Sunny city’), in whose construction the government is currently investing tens of millions of euros while preparing the grounds for the foreign corporation (Cevahir Holding).

In the neoliberal city the violence from these partnerships is distributed to already marginalised communities, the victims of this urban ‘progress’. The Albanian residents of the village Patishka Reka, on the slopes of Karadjica Mountain, are seeing their water appropriated for use in Sonchev Grad. Development would also be a catastrophe for the hundreds of families in the Topaana neighbourhood, inhabited by Roma people, which would be squished between the new U.S. Embassy and the proposed international financial zone that it set to replace the neighbouring military base; the historic Roma neighbourhood will then be threatened by developers competing for more space. Urbanisation in Skopje’s municipality of Aerodrom is taking the form of open racial discrimination as Roma dwellings are destroyed to open space for parking lots and parks. Dispossession, which Harvey analyses in “The Right to The City” and which is occurring in cities all over the world, looms on the horizon for many of the inhabitants of Skopje.

The privatisation of large tracts of state-owned land in Skopje could not have been possible without the creation of a new architectural aesthetic, the neo-Baroque look applied by the government to their redesigns of the centre. Moreover, the construction of dozens of monuments privileging ethnic Macedonians over other ethnic groups is in large part actually aimed at marginalising those ethnic, racial, and religious communities which stand in the way of the new urban process.

The urbanisation of Skopje is a class phenomenon. In Novo Maalo, car repair shops and their workers who constituted part of the history of the neighbourhood were evicted by force to open the space for the construction of the corporate shopping mall Vero, just across from the National Bank. Neoliberalism has increased the class power of the rich in Macedonia and the world by weakening the ability of the rest to resist their own economic exploitation. Even the park-forest Vodno has fallen victim to the neoliberal city and urban planning. In light of this situation, the struggle to protect the facade of the historic Gradski trgovski centar (City Trade Centre) from the planned neo-Baroque redesign, which would entail yet another public-private partnership, should form part of the resistance against the neoliberal city and the newly established hegemony.